February 16: Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR. As a friend has pointed out, Chaplin doesn’t really belong to the history of cinema; he belongs to history. What for another artist might only come across as misjudgment, naïveté or bad taste often registers in a Chaplin film as personal/ historical testimony of the most candid and searing sort. Thus the total inadequacy of his impassioned speech at the end of THE GREAT DICTATOR — as art, as thought, as action, as anything — becomes the key experience that the film has to offer, revealing the limitations of human utterance in face of the unspeakable. For roughly two hours, ChapIin has been trying to defeat Hitler by using every trick that he knows; finally exhausting his capacities for comedy and ridicule, and realizing that neither is enough, he turns to us in his own person and tries even harder, making a direct plea for hope. But while he effectively annihilates the Tramp before our eyes, he simultaneously recreates him in a much more profound way, exposing the brutal fact of his own helplessness.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). This film is now available on a Criterion Blu-Ray. Although I still have some issues with the film, after reseeing it on this edition, Terry Gilliam’s audio commentary is terrific, and his own enthusiasm for the film is often compelling. — J.R.
THE FISHER KING
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Richard LaGravenese
With Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, and Tom Waits.
Terry Gilliam’s elephantine yet breezy The Fisher King is a gripping new-age extravaganza, visually splendid and adroitly paced. But some gross conceptual cheating — presumably the fallout of commercial ambitions — makes the film a little hard to swallow. Gilliam’s fifth feature (he also directed Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) revels in duality — everything comes in twos — so it’s little wonder it indulges in both duplicity and outright doublethink; the film is also littered with internal “rhymes,” both significant and gratuitous. This duality may come partly from the fact that for the first time Gilliam has not written the script himself — it’s by talented newcomer Richard LaGravenese. At any rate the duality echoes Gilliam’s well-advertised desire to make this both an artistic and commercial success — to prove he can turn out a money-maker (after the box-office flop of Baron Munchausen) and yet retain his reputation as an overachiever in the grand style, a director known for his quirky humor and ravishing visual conceits.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 28, 2003). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Francois Velle
Written by Craig Sherman
With Jordan Bridges, Marisa Coughlan, Heather Donahue, Dan Hedaya, Mark Setlock, Benito Martinez, Charles Rocket, and Paul McCrane.
As the opening narration makes clear, New Suit – a satirical comedy about Hollywood suits — is loosely based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Kevin Taylor, a 24-year-old script editor and frustrated screenwriter, is already jaded after 18 months working in the office of has-been producer Muster Hansau. Taylor (Jordan Bridges) gets especially irritated one day after hearing some of his hotshot coworkers spout bullshit at the studio commissary. He gets up from the table and buys a strawberry ice cream cone from a guy named Jordan, then returns and starts talking about an imaginary hot new script called “New Suit” by an imaginary writer named Jordan Strawberry that he says his bosses are excitedly pursuing.
His tablemates simultaneously claim they’ve already heard about the script and pump him for more information. Before long the whole town is talking about this promising property — especially after Kevin’s former girlfriend Marianne, a rising agent, overhears him saying that Strawberry is “unrepresented.” She promptly claims to be representing him, which starts a bidding war between two studios.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.
* BLOWN AWAY
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach
With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.
In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.
There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away).… Read more »
It’s possible that I overrated Twilight and underrated The Big Lebowski in this Chicago Reader piece (March 6, 1998); I’d have to resee both these films in order to be sure. —J.R.
The Big Lebowski
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, and Jon Polito.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Benton and Richard Russo
With Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and Giancarlo Esposito.
It’s purely a matter of chance that two neo-Chandler mysteries with contemporary Los Angeles settings are opening this week. But although Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and Robert Benton’s Twilight differ in tone, style, milieu, and generational perspective, both films arrive at their private-eye stories through the unorthodox detour of the western. In Benton’s case the western reference is harder to detect but central to the conception throughout; the film even climaxes with the equivalent of a western showdown and shoot-out. In the Coens’ case it’s much more blatant but proves to be window dressing.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 509). — J.R.
Director: Howard Zieff
Cert–A. dist–ClC. p.c–MGM. A Bill/Zieff production. p–Tony Bill. p. manager–Clark L. Paylow. asst. d–Jack B. Bernstein, Alan Brimfleld. sc–Rob Thompson. ph–Mario Tosi. col–Metrocolor. ed–Edward Warschilka. a.d–Robert Luthardt. set dec–Charles R. Pierce. m-Ken Lauber. m. sup–Harry V. Lojewski. special musical artists–Nick Lucas, Roger Patterson, Merle Travis. cost–Patrick Cummings. choreo--Sylvia Lewis. Titles/opticals–MGM. sd–Jerry Jost, Harry W. Tetrick. sd. effects–John P. Riordan. l.p–Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Blythe Danner (Miss Trout), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Donald Pleasence (A. I. Nietz), Alan Arkin (Kessler), Richard B. Shull (Stout Crook), Herbert Edelman (Polo), Alex Rocco (Earl), Frank Cady (Pa Tater), Anthony James (Lean Crook), Burton Gilliam (Lester), Matt Clark (Jackson), Candy Azzata (Waitress), Thayer David (Bank Manager), Marie Windsor (Woman at Nevada Hotel), Anthony Holland (Guest at Beach Party), Dub Taylor (Nevada Ticket Agent), Raymond Guth (Wally), Wayne Storm (Zyle), Herman Poppe (Lowell), William Christopher (Bank Teller), Jane Dulo (Mrs.… Read more »
From Jean-Luc Godard: Son-Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). -– J.R.
“Jean-Luc cultists,” complains Judith Crist in the World Journal
Tribune. God bless them! They constitute a line of defense against
every manipulative insult the entertainment business throws out,
there are more of them each year, and they may even be winning.
– Roger Greenspun (1)
Greenspun’s rallying cry of a quarter of a century ago testifies to the passion and debate that
used to be stirred up in the United States when Godard’s name was mentioned. The gradual
phasing out of that debate and the depletion of that passion cannot be explained simply, and
to understand it at all requires some careful thought about how American culture as a whole
has itself changed in the interim. For a director still closely identified with the sixties in
American film criticism, Godard is regarded today with much of the same fear, skepticism,
suspicion, and impatience that greet many other contemporary responses to that decade.
And his status as an intellectual with a taste for abstraction may make him seem even
more out of place in a mass culture that currently has little truck with movie experiences
that can’t be reduced to sound bites.… Read more »
Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.
(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)
Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s.… Read more »
From DVD Beaver, posted in November 2008. A few of the links may be out of date by now. — J.R.
The following selection is not only personal but very eclectic. It’s not exactly a list of my favorite films: I prefer Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) to his Blind Husbands (1919), for instance, and if I had to take one Anthony Mann film along with me to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be The Naked Spur (1953) rather than his Man of the West (1958). Similarly, my favorite films by Nicholas Ray are probably Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bitter Victory (1957), even though Party Girl (1958), for all its flaws, is still a Ray film that I’d describe as sublime. But I’ve opted in these cases for the DVDs devoted to Stroheim, Mann, and Ray that I cherish the most, and the reasons why I cherish them are stated below.
A few other caveats:
(a) There are at least two other editions of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) —- the U.S. one from Criterion and the English one from the British Film Institute—- that are top-notch, and they’re probably easier to come by in the Western hemisphere than the Australian edition on the Madman label that I cite.… Read more »
This commissioned essay was for a touring retrospective catalogue, The American New Wave, 1958-1967, published by the Walker Art Center and Media Center/Buffalo in 1982 (and slightly tweaked just now, in June 2010). It’s dated by my erroneous assumption, shared by most critics during this period, that the dialogue of Shadows was improvised, corrected years later by the research of Ray Carney — although I still stand fully behind my opening paragraph. I was also mistaken in my assumption that Charles Mingus was entirely responsible for the film’s score, especially in the second version. (Ross Lipman has written brilliantly and in detail on this subject in an essay that can be accessed here.)
My writing of this article was both interrupted and ultimately informed by the the shock of the suicide of my older brother David. Regarding the details about lapsed Catholicism apropos of The Savage Eye, I can still recall a phone conversation I had at the time with the late Veronica Geng, a former colleague at Soho News (and lapsed Catholic) and a writer and editor at The New Yorker whom I plumbed for information and advice. Perhaps I went a little overboard in my expressions of scorn for the purple prose in The Savage Eye’s commentary; today I find it rather fascinating for its kinship with Beat writing from the same period, for better and for worse. … Read more »
Posted by DVD Beaver in January 2007; I’ve updated several links. — J.R.
One reason why I haven’t gone earlier than 1940 in this chronological list is that satire depends on a certain amount of currency in order to be effective, and the further off we are in time from a given movie, the less likely it is to affect us directly. This isn’t invariably true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to literature: think of Voltaire’s Candide, first published in 1759, which probably seems more “up to date” today than Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, first published in 1958. But it’s also important to realize that one of the best ways to understand a historical period is to discover how it was ridiculed by its contemporaries.
With some significant exceptions —- Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one of the most striking —- satire, as playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman once put it, is what closes in New Haven, and this is especially true of most movie satires. Apart from the studio fodder (the first two items here), and discounting the arthouse features of Buñuel and Kiarostami, all these movies were either flops or at most modest successes, and some were resounding flops.… Read more »
This film review appeared in The Soho News‘ November 12, 1980 issue. Agee (the writer) has long since then gone up again, considerably, in my estimation of his work. (I’m currently awaiting the soon-to-appear and very pricey collection The Complete Film Criticism of James Agee, edited by Charles Maland.)
Ross Spears’ documentary about Agee, which was later nominated for an Oscar, can be ordered now on DVD, along with An Afternoon with Father Flye, from this site. —J.R.
A film by Ross Spears
Bleecker Street Cinema (The James Agee Room),
Nov. 14-16 and 21-23
When I first saw this feature-length documentary (which is now officially inaugurating the Bleecker Street Cinema’s small, additional screening room) a year or so back, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jimmy Carter — on the campaign trail for the Presidency in ’76 –- making a guest appearance. In the opening moments of the film, he speaks with real intelligence and sensitivity about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men –- an angry, experimental, unclassifiable work of reportage, poetry and analysis about three Alabama tenant families near the height of the Depression, with photographs by Walker Evans and text by James Agee.
This wasn’t a bit like Richard Nixon declaring that he’d seen all of John Ford’s films, or Ronald Reagan leaking sincerity and integrity like a reptilian wallet in his old General Electric TV spots.… Read more »
From DVD Beaver (posted June 2008). Some of these listings may be out of date — and in the case of Godard’s Histoire(s), superseded by subsequent American and/or Blu-Ray editions. – J.R.
Coming up with my favorite box sets from abroad is a far cry from compiling a list of my favorite films on DVD, foreign or otherwise, even if some of my favorite films are represented here. The problem is, as Mick Jagger puts it, you can’t always get what you want. To start with an extreme example, my favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien film is most likely The Puppetmaster (1993), but my least favorite of all the DVDs of Hou films in my collection happens to be the Winstar edition of that film. It’s so substandard —- not even letterboxed, and packaged so clumsily — that I’m embarrassed to find myself quoted on the back of the box, especially with the quotation mangled into tortured grammar.
I’ve aimed for a certain geographical spread as well as some generic balance: popular comedies, art films, experimental films, and one serial; DVDs from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Admittedly, roughly half of my selections come from France, and a quarter of them, to my surprise, comes from a single label, Gaumont —- maybe because this blockbuster company seems to specialize in blockbuster box sets.… Read more »
This was published at the end of my first year at the Reader, in their Christmas issue. –J.R.
BROADCAST NEWS *** (A must-see)
Directed and written by James L. Brooks
With Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, and Jack Nicholson.
WALL STREET ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stone and Stanley Weiser
With Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Terence Stamp, Hal Holbrook, and Sylvia Miles.
Both Broadcast News and Wall Street score as punchy, energetic movies that are designed to feel as contemporary as possible without taking place in the literal present, and both pivot around a moral reckoning that accompanies economic cutbacks -– as if to remind us that this country’s Reagan-inspired spending spree, which tripled our trillion-dollar national debt, seems to be drawing to a fearful close. Apart from offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of their all-encompassing, hothouse professional turfs, both movies are built around the mise en scene of a moral crisis that splits the major characters apart –- each one charting a mutual seduction that leads to recriminations and the characters isolated in opposing moral camps. Yet the undisputed effectiveness of these films as entertainment seems at least partially predicated on fudging or at least mystifying the moral issues that they are bold enough to raise.… Read more »
This was written for and published in Stop Smiling no. 34, a special jazz issue, dated February 2008. –J.R.
Keith Jarrett, Cross-Referencer
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Jazz musicians who like to cross-reference the history of their art rather than simply steal licks from their role models are probably even more plentiful than film directors who do “homages” to favorite sequences and directors. The musicians also generally do a better job of mixing their own style with that of their models than Hollywood directors do when they strive to reproduce particular shots. Closer to Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais than to, say, Peter Bogdanovich or Brian De Palma, they invariably bring something of their own to the table, transforming our sense of the original in the process. Every time Dave Brubeck chooses to shift to stride piano, he’s saying something sweet about his predecessors, and whenever Charles Mingus gave us patches of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, or Charlie Parker in one of his multifaceted compositions, he was doing a more elaborate version of the same thing.
Some jazz pianists — including a few of the most distinctive ones, like McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett — even go so far as to put together entire albums composed of “tributes” to some of their colleagues.… Read more »